Phoenix Requiem is another one of those rare beasts; a finished web comic! I find it enormously satisfying to be able to read something from beginning to end in one or two sittings and at 800 pages it’s possible to do just that.
A note on the genre; as mentioned above this is set an alternative universe to our own but one that is, roughly speaking, at a technology and culture point very similar to that of our own Victorian era. But not, you know, strictly Victorian but I’m going to refer to it as such.
The characters and comic concept
The core concept of the comic is that of a Victorian era supernatural mystery and romance.
Our lead character, Anya Katsukova, is a nurse (training to become a doctor) in the small town of Esk when patients begin falling sick with a mysterious new disease; a disease that does not seem to follow natural law.
The night before the outbreak of the disease, All Souls Night to be precise, a mysterious handsome stranger is discovered unconscious in the wood. With the doctor absent Anya takes him into her care.
The story unfolds from this point and follows Anya’s attempts to solve both the riddles of the disease and her strange new patient, who we come to know as Jonas Faulkner.
Anya and Jonas prove to be our main characters. Their personalities are adequate for the story being told but are not super-deep. Anya is the dedicated, determined carer, always sacrificing herself for others. Jonas is the flippant, fun loving dapper gentlemen with a mysterious past. There’s a little character development over the course of the story but it’s not a focus of the comic.
There are two ‘main’ supporting characters, Robyn Hart and Petria, who are perfectly likable and are mostly used in the story to show us what is happening in and around Esk when our main characters are not on scene. The rest of the supporting cast are lightly developed, not really stretching beyond their two dimensional boundaries for the most part.
Setting the story in the Victorian era, but in an alternate reality to our own, has given the author both plenty of room to draw details from history and invent new material in her world building efforts. She has created new religions, new creatures to inhabit the world, but the culture and times are that of the familiar highly structured society of the repressed 19th century. It’s a good blend, though perhaps not as leveraged as much as it could have been. Still it’s full of the old classics; such as secret societies, medical experimentation, lunatic asylums and the treatment of women like they were second class citizens.
As mentioned above the story focus is around the characters attempts to solve the mystery around a series of sinister events which I won’t go into because that would totally spoil it.
But it’s a pretty good mystery, even if I did start to get a bit lost near the end on my first read. Arguably it’s not breaking new ground here, but it has good bones as it were and delivers an engaging read. There’s a nice early build-up of suspense and intrigue in the early volumes. Then it does slow a little in the middle but manages to keep advancing the story just enough to keep it interesting; and then a relatively quick wrap up at the end.
There is a whiff of deus ex machina in regards a couple of pivotal plot points and a couple of plot points which, on close examination, probably don’t quite make sense. The story would have been stronger without these, but they’re certainly not insurmountable to an enjoyable read. And critically they didn’t break my engagement with the story. But I’m a sucker for classic suspense/horror of all kinds and tend to be forgiving of such things in that context; as always your mileage may vary.
Romantic relationships between characters are also the focus of the comic and, when not dealing with the mystery and events at hand, the rest of the story is given over to relationship based drama. So if you don’t like flirting and meaningful glances then this may not be for you.
And then there is also a bit of (very mild) horror and suspense thrown in. Though these elements are central to the story, and quite nicely done, they felt more like a vehicle, or a back drop, for the romance based story elements to occur against.
The art style is good through out, and does improve from the earliest pages, but there is a high level of quality throughout – and some real standout pieces, particularly when things get creepy.
The only niggle I have; there is sometimes a little bit of… stiffness I’ll call it…to the characters stance and movement. But this is easily compensated by the characters wonderfully emotive facial expressions.
Author, publishing and timeline
The Phoenix Requiem is drawn and written by Sarah Ellerton, a resident of Queensland, Australia.
Ms Ellerton has written a couple of other web comics; the delightful short story length Dreamless, and another longer, completed web comic, which I haven’t yet gotten around to reading but it’s on the list, called Inverloch. She has also illustrated a number of print only comics which are available on Amazon.